Sunday, 27 November 2016

Steel and Silver - Part III

Our penultimate part rejoins our young hero as he slips back into the normality of his daily life. As winter wraps its fingers around the land, his days settle back into their usual course, and our protagonist all-but forgets of the strange figure who appeared in the tavern...

The final part of Steel and Silver shall be released on the 4th December. As before, any who have not read it may find a  glance over Watcher of the West useful at this point - though it's not necessary in order to enjoy this new story to its fullest capacity! Happy reading!

Hugh’s humble life faded back to normality over the next few days, yet still he could not find the strength nor courage to tell Sara the truth of his past. Poisonous thoughts of steel and silver were washed from his mind by new memories with Sara – kissing under the big oak outside the village, rolling in the snow together, talking about words and letters by the brook a few miles from the village. When no shadowy figures reappeared in the village and all of the coins from the Western Heartlands were spent or traded away, Hugh found himself almost forgetting about the strange evening in The Grotto, where his life had taken such an unexpected turn.
Several weeks passed in warmth and bliss despite the hard winter. Whilst the farmers worried over their crops and their herds, Hugh found himself lost in a haze of love and happiness. Days were spent in the butchers with Felyr, being goaded and taunted about his feelings for Sara and her love of him. Evenings were spent with her, locked in an embrace or whispering to one-another and laughing. This is it, Hugh thought time and again as he gazed into her perfect light green eyes, this is how I wish to spend the rest of my life; here, with good and honest folk, humble people who speak the languages of truth and love like the nobility never could.
As the snow continued to fall throughout the winter days, a large bonfire was lit in the centre of the village, close to the well, to provide both light and warmth to those who needed it. Some evenings were spent in revelry around the fire, drinking and eating hearty food whilst the snow continued to fall. He would dance with Sara, in amongst the others of the village. They would spin in the winter shadows and the glow of the firelight, hot and heady. They would laugh and embrace, kissing in the winter’s gloom, happy and in love. Every time, though, Hugh found his eyes guided to the well, where the sword was hidden. Would I be able to hold it now? he always asked himself as he was led by the hand into another dance, or to sit on one of the low stools that were pulled up. It had been so long since he had fought, and even longer since he had been taught a proper lesson in swordplay.
Sometimes he watched the small unit of soldiers that were posted at Kirkby-by-Hill run their drills and practices just beyond the edge of the village. Black specks against a hill white with snow, he would gaze through the open shutters of Felyr’s butcher-barn whilst crudely hacking and chopping away at dead meat. The soldiers struck with such haste and precision, using their shields and blades to protect one-another and advance in well-organised formations. Hugh wondered if he would ever be called upon to fight in the military, though he doubted it. Bastards were not often welcomed, and his name was a branding of just that. Furthermore, the Vidorian Legion was reluctant to accept anyone with so much as a dash of poor medical health, and Hugh’s lies about memory loss stood him out there.
So his days were spent as they always were. He would rise early, say his goodbyes to Olfden and Lynna, and then head off to Felyr’s. He would spend a precious few moments sitting outside the barn with Sara before being called in to begin. Hours would pass in a haze of fat and flesh, blood and bone, as he exchanged banter and wisdom with the older man. He was a crude and bitter fellow, dark in humour and tone, but Hugh found his fondness of the butcher ever-growing.
Yet with every passing day, he never found the moment to tell Sara the truth. To her, he was still the man grown from an amnesic ten-year-old. She loved him for it, and Hugh found himself worried that their relationship was built solely on a foundation of lies. Yet we are both happy, Hugh always told himself, and in truth, is that such a bad thing? Is that so awful?
One day in the heart of winter, Hugh found himself pondering that very question in The Grotto. He sat where he always did, gazing into the huge, roaring fire. The tavern was packed that night, swarmed with people from Kirkby-by-Hill and a few of the farms and hamlets beyond. Dozens of people were crammed onto the benches and stools, and there was not room for one soul more in the crowded place. Hugh could hear Sara running from person to person, serving drinks and sharing a quick laugh with the folk. Never was she harassed by the patrons, for all knew she was Burr Longfield’s daughter, and to mess with him was to go the same way as the bandits that had troubled him many years before – strung up and begging for mercy.
As he sat and gazed into the fire, sipping a small wooden cupful of mead and kneading the troubling thoughts in his head, he found himself suddenly nervous. It was as if a foul wind had just blown through the tavern – a wind only he could feel. He lifted his head and looked around, pulling his threadbare cloak tighter around his shoulders. There was nothing out of the ordinary in the room: dozens of people sharing laughter and drinks. The place was awash with smiles and merriment, so why was he feeling so uneasy.
Hugh glanced around the room one last time, unsure what it was that had made him so suddenly nervous. These are good, honest people, Hugh thought as he peered around the long, well-lit room. The roaring fire before him illuminated most of the benches, tables and stools that were around him, and the smattering of candles placed around the rest of the long, low chamber chased away much of the remaining darkness. The light touched everything, and the shadows hid nothing. Wait…
It was as if he had slipped back in time to a place he had desperately tried to forget. The room seemed to quieten as Hugh made contact with a pair of eyes hidden by a low, shadowy hood. A long, thin pipe placed between weathered lips and a scruff of stubble upon a pale jaw below. The cloak about the figure hid all but the hilt of the sword at his hip, and the stranger sat in the very same spot as he had done weeks ago. Hugh could almost feel the stranger’s silver in his fingers, emblazoned with the name: Andrey of Busnik. Suddenly, Hugh was afraid. Not this again, he thought as a chill washed over him, not now.
He was about to climb to his feet and confront the stranger when he felt hands on his body. ‘Alright, my sweetheart?’ Sara’s gentle voice whispered into his ear, accompanied by a kiss on his cheek. ‘I’ll be over to sit with you soon, I promise. There’s just a quick errand I must run.’
Hugh barely heard what Sara said. Quickly returning the kiss, he glanced over his shoulder again to the shadowy spot in the corner. The stranger had vanished, like before. ‘Did you see him? Hugh cried, leaping to his feet, pointing to the gloom-shrouded corner. ‘Did you see? It was him again, the fellow from a few weeks ago who paid with Western Heartlands’ silver!’
‘Really?’ Sara said with a frown, standing up beside Hugh to look. ‘I didn’t see him come in. How did you know it what that fellow?’
‘He wore the same leathers and cloak!’ Hugh said. ‘I would wager my life that it was the same fellow.’
Sara gasped, her rosy face twisting in horror and revulsion. ‘Don’t say such things,’ she said in a low hiss. ‘Make no such wagers, you never know who may be listening!’
‘I’m sorry,’ Hugh said quickly, ‘but I’m certain it was him. I must go and see, he may still be outside!’
Sara nodded her head slowly. ‘Do what you will,’ she said gently, ‘just be careful.’
Hugh managed a small smile and quickly kissed Sara on her sweet lips. ‘I shall,’ he said. ‘You needn’t worry about me.’
‘I always shall,’ Sara called after him as he made his way towards the tavern door, ‘from now ‘til the day I die I shall worry for you, Hugh.’
He shot Sara one last somewhat nervous smile before pushing his way between the tables thronging with patrons and through the door of The Grotto. Soon, he was outside in the cold, dark streets that ran through Kirkby-by-Hill. The snow had stopped falling a few hours before and the skies had cleared. The full moon in the sky above lit the landscape below silver-white. The snow-laden thatch of the houses in the village glowed, though the streets had been cleared. A few of the small contingent of imperial soldiers that patrolled the village were visible against the large, roaring bonfire at the village centre. It was too cold for revelry this night, and all those who could be inside were.
The stranger had vanished. Hugh looked up and down the snow-cleared streets but could see no-one other than the few soldiers in their black armour, dark against the snowy landscape that surrounded them. Damn it all, he thought, kicking the cobbles at his feet. Now I may never know who he is or what he wants.
But just as he was about to turn and walk back into the warmth of the tavern, something caught his eye. On top of the eastern hill, high on the great cleft of white snow, was a twinkling light. Small and orange, it could have been a star for it looked so distant. Yet it illuminated a little of the white hillside, turning it a ghostly orange. A figure? Hugh thought as he tried to make out the odd shape highlighted beneath the orange light.
As his eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, Hugh realised that he was correct. There was, indeed, a figure beneath the flickering orange light on the hill. In fact, there were two. One was tall, the figure of a Human in a long cloak sitting atop a lithe horse. The other was much shorter yet very broad – he held the torch, a thick arm waving it aloft in the air. A signal? Hugh thought as he looked up at the undulating torchlight on the hill, waving slowly from one side to the other. A signal for what?
But then he saw more figures appear on the hill either side of the two already there. Two dozen, perhaps three. Some were mounted on horses, whilst others were standing with more torches held high. Suddenly, shouts broke out from the guards in the village. ‘On the hill!’ one was yelling, somewhere out of Hugh’s line of sight. ‘Bandits! Bandits on the hill! Prepare to defend!’
Bandits. Hugh’s blood went cold. With a cry, he turned and ran back into the tavern, arms waving. ‘Bandits!’ he cried at the top of his lungs, waving his arms from side to side and trying to catch everyone’s attention. It was no good, though, for the hubbub in the tavern was far too loud for him to shout over. ‘Bandits!’ he continued to yell. ‘There are bandits attacking the village, we must hide! Hide!’
Then he made eye contact with Sara. She was on the other side of the room, still sitting by the hearth where he had left her. She seemed to read his lips, for her eyes were wide and the rosiness that usually alighted her cheeks had drained to white. She opened her mouth, as if to scream, just as a burning firebrand was thrown through the open shutters.
It was a one-in-a-million shot. The firebrand bounced off a table and sailed across the room over the patron’s heads. Before anyone had so much as a chance to scream, the brand of flames landed beside a keg close to the bar and instantly set it alight. There was a whoosh of flame as the alcohol within the poorly-made keg flared and exploded, sending fire flying across the room, over the patrons, and into the thatch above.
Suddenly, everyone was running for the door and Hugh was in the way. He had no time to move before a tide of terror crashed into him. Knocked to the floor, he put his arms over his head as dozens of feet trampled him. His world became a blur of pain and screaming, and then of fire and terror. As soon as the last foot had fallen, he tried to lift himself to his feet but could not. He opened his eyes but everything was a haze of fire and shadow. His head span and the strength had gone from his arms – and there was something heavy lying on his legs.
As his head slowly stopped swimming, his surroundings became clearer. He had been knocked away from The Grotto’s door and to one side. A bench had been overturned onto him, and a huge section of the thatch ceiling had collapsed. Behind the bar, he could see a fierce fire burning as huge barrels of alcohol and spirit burned. The heat was staggering, and Hugh felt his whole body drenched in sweat. I’m going to die, he thought as he tried to push the bench off his legs. I’m going to die in here, alone and burning.
He could smell burning flesh on the air, and as he fought the blur from his vision dark shapes within the flames became familiar: figures he had seen that evening, sitting and drinking, now fuel for the flames beneath collapsed beams and immolated thatch. I’m going to die, he thought again as he pushed the heavy bench lying across his bench to no avail. I can’t move the damn bench! I’m going to die!
Frantically, he kicked and shoved with all his waning might. The strength-sapping heat and the daze that still clung to his body slowed his wits and made him weak, and as the fires crept every closer and the heat rose yet higher, Hugh gave up. I’m going to be burned to death by bandits, he thought bitterly, glaring at the flames before him as he began to panic.
Then, there were hands upon him. His arms were seize and he was hauled across the ground. ‘We’ve got him!’ someone was yelling as he was dragged onto the cobbles of the moon and fire-lit street outside. ‘He’s over here! Quickly!’
Thank goodness, Hugh thought as he felt his legs slide free of the heavy length of wood that was atop them. I would’ve burned to death in there…
‘What are you doing? Stick him!’ another voice yelled. ‘Throw his body into the fire before someone sees something! Stop wasting time!’
Hugh’s eyes grew wide and he looked up into the faces of two men he had never seen before. They were wearing rough leathers and wore belts of iron swords and knives around their bodies. Their faces were filthy and grizzled, covered in cuts and scratches with many teeth missing between them. Each held a bloody shortsword in his hand, and both had their eyes fixed upon him.
‘No!’ he cried, yanking his arms free and struggling to crawl his feet. ‘Get away from me, you wretches, get away or I’ll-…’
A huge shape barrelled from the shadows and into one of the two men. Hugh recognised the roaring voice that accompanied it as Olfden’s. The huge man tackled one of the men to the floor and set about him with a crude hammer, bludgeoning his head into bloody rubble. The second man made no attempt to help his friend, and instead lunged at Hugh with his shortsword.
Hugh cried out and stepped to one side. The sword whizzed past him and struck the wood of the burning tavern behind him. The heat at his back was incredible, but as the bandit lunged at him a second time, Hugh found himself leaping back towards it. His adversary’s face was lit by the orange flame, terrible and hideous, spectral in the firelight. Hugh felt only fear; yet as he did so, he felt furious. ‘Get away from here!’ he yelled and leapt forwards, driving a fist into the man’s jaw. There was a crunch as teeth and bone gave way and the man staggered backwards, clutching his face.
Seizing his chance, Hugh leapt forwards and drove another punch into the broken bone. His second blow was thrown with such force that the bandit was knocked clean off his feet. The man spun on the spot before falling hard, face-first into the cobbles. Without so much as a thought, Hugh then span to assist Olfden, the man who had become his father, with his foe.
Olfden was already on his feet, though, the other man dead in the road. His skull and brains had been spread in a wide and bloody arc across the icy cobbles in long, reddish-grey streamers. ‘Come on!’ he yelled, tossing Hugh one of the fallen men’s shortswords. ‘We have to help the others!’
‘Sara!’ Hugh cried over the roar of the burning building behind them. ‘She was inside, she-…’
‘She’s with her Da!’ Olfden yelled back. ‘We’ve got to get rid of these bandits! The soldier are outnumbered three to one!’
With a hard swallow and a sombre nod of his head, Hugh gripped the poorly-made and half-blunted iron shortsword in his hands. With a heavy heart, he looked at the sword in his hands. It was both foreign yet so familiar, as if he had been reunited with a limb he did not know he had lost – one from the past, emblazoned with history and long-fought memories.
Around him, most of the village was ablaze. Leather-clad riders charged through the streets, tossing burning firebrands onto the snow-covered thatch of houses or breaking down shutters and throwing them inside. The populace ran through the streets screaming, chased down by rabid men clutching weapons and gnashing their teeth ferociously. Not again, Hugh thought to himself as he followed the hammer-wielding Oldfen towards the middle of the village. Not this again, not more tragedy and loss. This can’t happen again – I won’t let it!
As he ran behind the big man he had come to love as family, he passed carnage. People he knew lay dead in the streets, burned to cinders or slashed to pieces by crude iron blades. There was little solace in the scattering of bandit bodies that lay amongst them, pierced by imperial steel, for they were nearly matched in the number of imperial dead. The guard has fallen, Hugh thought as he ran after Olfden, the streets lit by the roar of orange flame on either side as homes burned. We are on our own.
When they made it to the middle of the village, Hugh found the large bonfire still burning. The last few imperial soldiers that were alive – less than half a dozen in total – were making their stand there, backs to the roaring bonfire lit to stave off the chill. They were surrounded by dead bandits, their swords bloody and their phoenix-crested shields were scarred with the marks of many savage blows. The buildings adjacent were all ablaze, their timbers and thatch engulfed in golden-yellow fire and spewing dark smoke into the clear night sky above.
As they neared the line of men, Olfden turned to Hugh. ‘You’re a good lad,’ he said, his dark eyes grave. ‘You’re the closest thing to a son I’ve ever had, so don’t waste the life you have here. As soon as it’s clear, run.’
‘No!’ Hugh cried as the fires roared around them. ‘I shall not run from this – not again!’
‘Again?’ Olfden said, his brow quirked. ‘What do you mean?’
Hugh let out a sob, unable to hide it any longer. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry, I should have told you from the start, I-…’
The two men span around. Two riders were flying down towards them, their horses in a frantic charge between the lines of burning buildings. The glow of the flames rippled upon their swords and the simple helmets they wore as they charged towards the guards in the middle of the village. Olfden clapped Hugh on the arm and turned away. ‘Later!’ he yelled, clutching his hammer in his fist and readying himself beside the soldiers.
Hugh was about to leap to defence with the other men when something caught his eye. To one side, down another passageway leading away from the centre of the village, he could see three leather-clad men locked in a vicious fight with another man. Steel and iron flashed in the flare of the fire, and as the men moved together, caught in a dance of death, Hugh saw a face he recognised. Felyr! Without so much as a thought, Hugh ran towards the fire-illuminated men.
Acrid smoke thick with the stench of dead flesh blew about him on the cold night wind as he charged forwards, tatty cloak caught in the wind. ‘Devils!’ he roared as he set about the three men with his sword. ‘Demons, devils and despicable things! May Vidoria burn your souls forevermore!’
The first of the three bandits did not even have a chance to turn before Hugh ran his blade through his stomach. The second let out a shout of warning, but had his throat opened wide by one of Felyr’s blood-soaked cleavers. The third man tried to run, but Hugh’s blade found his armpit and was driven through the bandit’s torso before he could react.
‘Where did you learn to fight like that?’ Felyr growled, arms and legs slick with blood. His grizzled, bald head was slathered yet more blood leaking from a cut across his forehead. ‘You’re a skilled fellow with a sword! No wonder you made a promising butcher!’
‘Where’s Sara?’ Hugh cried over the roar of screaming voices and howling flames. ‘I have not seen her!’
‘She was with her Da!’ Felyr yelled back. ‘You should run whilst-…’
‘No!’ Hugh cried. ‘I’ll not abandon you folk. You should run, Felyr, Don’t die here! Who will then make the best sausages in the Southern Heartlands?’
Southern Heartlands?’ Felyr yelled, his face creased with fury. ‘They’re the best sausages in the whole Empire, you idiotic swine!’ He let out a laugh and grabbed Hugh with a bloody hand. ‘I saw Sara and ol’ Burr leading a group southwards. Olfden’s Lynna was with them too, along with near a dozen others. I’ll head and see if they’re alright, offer what help I can!’
‘I shall be along soon!’ Hugh cried as Felyr turned and ran off through the smoke, disappearing behind a thick blanket of black fumes and roaring fire. I cannot leave these people now, he thought to himself. I’ve fled once, hid and cowered whilst my last family was slaughtered. Not today! Never today! He turned back towards the centre of the village and set off at a run towards where he had left Olfden and the imperial soldiers.
One of the riders was dead, along with one of the imperial soldiers. The other was still driving his horse around the bonfire, charging blindly at the remaining soldiers. As Hugh neared, he watched as Olfden swung his hammer with such force into one of the horse’s forelegs that the limb snapped. The beast fell and the rider went flying from the saddle, snapping his neck as he landed. The roaring firelight cast terrible shadows upon his twitching corpse, twisted into a stomach-turning angle in the melted snow and blood upon the cobbles.
‘Olfden!’ Hugh cried as he ran towards them. ‘Olfden, where are the others? What are we doing?’
‘Distract them!’ Olfden cried. ‘There are groups of us fleeing, if we can keep them here for a while they can get away! We may even rout these buggers!’
But no sooner had the words left Olfden’s mouth than a much larger group of leather and rag-clad bandits stepped into the firelight. They all wore simple leathers, bodies criss-crossed with weapon-holding belts, and holding nasty-looking iron blades in their hands. Hugh counted ten in all before they all charged at the handful of defenders around the bonfire.
Within seconds, Hugh found himself cut off from Olfden and the few remaining imperial soldiers. Beset by two thin but mean-looking men, he back-stepped and pirouetted as best as he could remember, wielding his battered iron sword with expertise as rusty as his blade. Despite never having fought in the last decade, Hugh found he outmatched the bandits’ savage hacking and slashing, and as one of his two adversaries put a foot wrong, he plunged his blade through his foe’s chest.
The second man took a step backwards and looked uncertain for a moment. As Hugh was about to step forwards, his enemy – a twisted-toothed man, shorter than he but with brawny arms and bandy legs – leapt forwards and kicked him backwards. Hugh staggered, falling onto the stone and his blade flying from his fingers. He could feel the bonfire roaring inches from his head and quickly scrambled back, looking for his sword, but it was gone.
His foe stood over him and laughed. ‘Little man ain’t so tough!’ he shouted down at him. ‘Gonna make you squeal like a stuck piggy, boy!’
Hugh looked up into a thin, bony face and sunken eyes. His foe had hardly any teeth, but had the look of a man who had killed hundreds and enjoyed the bloody nightmares the guilt brought. There’s no escape, Hugh thought, scrambling away. Another two of the imperial soldiers lay dead, as did a swath of the bandits, but Olfden and the others were locked in vicious grapples with their foes – no help was coming for Hugh.
He continued to scramble away from his leering foe, the fires furious around him. Then, he struck something with his back. The well! Hugh looked around and tried to grab hold of the well’s wide lip and scramble to his feet, but as he did the bandit kicked him down. ‘No escape, piggy-boy!’ he yelled, laughing, leering.
The sword.
Hugh looked around and found the loose cobble he had looked at more times than he could count. Rolling to one side, he grabbed the loose rock – heavy and the size of his forearm – and hauled it from the ground. With a defiant cry, he tossed it at his foe, who staggered backwards to avoid the projectile. Whilst he was distracted, Hugh thrust his hand into the space beneath it. His hands felt steel they had not touched for a decade, yet felt familiar. There was the leather-wrapped grip, the wide hilt, the stag-engraved pommel; he could feel one of the antlers beneath his palm.
With a defiant cry, he whipped the long, perfectly-made blade from the ground and slashed it in a wide arc at his foe. Too long to be a longsword yet too short to be a greatsword, Captain Aethlar’s old bastard-sword felt so right. No-longer did it feel alien in Hugh’s hands, as it had ten years ago. It whistled through the air and cut wide the leather armour at his adversary’s stomach, flashing orange in the firelight.
There was a cascade of blood and guts and his foe fell screaming. Hugh leapt to his feet and made for the foe grappling with Olfden, but the moment the bandit saw another man approaching he let go and began to run, as did the other bandits with him. Hugh watched, sword suddenly heavy in hand, as the bandits fled through the village.
‘They’re routed!’ one of the soldiers shouted. ‘They’ve gone!’
‘Quickly!’ another yelled, ‘Run them down whilst we have the advantage!’
The soldiers set off at a careful advance down the road which the bandits had fled down, leaving Hugh alone with Olfden. ‘Is that it?’ he said, turning to the big man. ‘Have they gone?’
Olfden looked morose for a moment, his dark eyes turned towards the smoke-covered sky. ‘Yes,’ he said slowly. ‘Listen; the screaming has stopped.’
Hugh fell silent and focused what energy he had left into his ears. Olfden was right – the screaming had stopped, as had the raucous yelling and sound of steel against iron. ‘We’ve driven them off,’ Hugh said in a breath. ‘Olfden, we’ve done it!’
Olfden smiled at Hugh. ‘You’ve made me proud, lad,’ he said with a weak smile. As Hugh watched, the big man stumbled, as if the energy had suddenly gone out of him.
Hugh let out a cry and dashed forwards, catching the big man and supporting him. ‘Olfden!’ he said, ‘What’s the matter? Are you hurt? Are you-…’ but as Hugh held the big man, he felt his hands grow wet and sticky with blood. He looked over Olfden’s shoulders and saw a huge wound in his lower back, leaking blood all over his shirt and trousers.
‘It’s nothing,’ Olfden said quietly, putting his arms weakly around Hugh’s frame. ‘Just set me down, son, set me down for a moment. I just need a rest.’
Hugh felt tears pouring from his eyes as he lowered the big man down against the well. When he took his arms away, they were sodden with the big man’s blood. ‘Talk to me, Olf,’ Hugh said, his voice shaking. ‘Keep talking, help will be here soon.’
‘You needn’t call me that,’ Olfden said with a small smile through his dark beard. ‘I’d say you are like a son to me, but you are well more than that, Hugh. Call me Pa.’
Hugh swallowed and tried to ignore the growing pool of blood spreading around Olfden. ‘Alright, Pa,’ he said with a weak, wobbly smile. ‘Alright, I’ll-…’
‘Don’t fear, Hugh,’ Olfden said, clutching Hugh’s hand with his own. ‘I just need to rest for a moment. Just…’
Hugh clenched his jaw and tried to fight back the tears, but could not hold them. ‘I’m so sorry,’ he said, breaking into a sob. ‘I’m so sorry, after everything you’ve done for me over the years, after all the help and care, after all the…all the…’ he trailed off.
‘Hey,’ Olfden said weakly, his voice almost lost to the roar of the fire. ‘Calm, lad, I’ll be alright.’
Hugh swallowed and nodded. ‘Okay,’ he said weakly. ‘I’ll just get the scabbard for the sword. I kept it here, you know, all these years.’ He reached across to the space beneath the cobbles and pulled out the leather case. Quickly, he began to buckle it across his chest. ‘I couldn’t bear to part with it, it’s the last reminder I had of who I am,’ he said as his fingers fumbled with the buckles. ‘I’m sorry, I lied,’ he said with another sob. ‘I’m Hugh Fortescue, son of Earl Jacob. I fled here after Earl Aesinger killed my family I-…’ he looked up into Olfden’s face and found it peaceful.
‘Pa?’ Hugh said, reaching out and touching the huge man’s bearded cheek. He made no response, his dark eyes continued to stare at Hugh, the flicker of a smile on his heavy but deathly pale features.
‘Pa? Are you-…? Pa?’ Hugh asked again, giving the big man a gentle shake. He made no response, his unblinking eyes continuing to stare into Hugh’s face.
            Hugh fell backwards onto his bottom, his body wracked with sobs. No, he thought as a terrible grief welled inside him. No, not again! Not again! I can’t lose another family, not like this, not like this! His thoughts became incoherent as rage and sorrow clouded his mind. For a few minutes he sat amongst the dead, the blood, and the fire and wept until he could weep no more.
            This can’t happen again, he thought, dragging himself to his feet. His body was heavy with fatigue and his mind weighted with sorrow. Felyr said they were going south. I have to make sure they’re alive, I have to go and help them! With one final splutter of sobs, Hugh gripped Captain Aethlar’s sword in his hand and set off at a run through the flame-engulfed village. I must find Lynna, and I must find Sara!
            He ran southward until smoke became snow and fire became ice. The blood remained, though, and it was marking Hugh’s passage southwards, down the small valley between the hills. He followed dozens of footsteps in the snow – erratic and oddly-spaced, splashed with droplets of blood or littered with cast-off possessions, deemed too heavy to carry. Dozens of people had run south, avoiding the hills immediately adjacent to the village in the hope of an easier flight.
As he ran, Hugh felt Captain Aethlar’s sword heavy in his hand, a reminder of what had happened and what was to come. Not Captain Aethlar’s sword – my sword. Resolute in purpose, his fury honed, Hugh continued to run. Captain Aethlar saved me, and so I shall use the blade he gave me to save others. I must.
            The light from the burning village still lit the far-off horizon when Hugh found the first body, face-down and dying the snow about it red with blood. As he rolled it over, he realised he knew the face – This is one of the Stoneswright boys, he thought with a sigh. He could not tell which of the twins it was, for there was nothing left of the man’s head below the nose. Quickly, Hugh rose to his feet and continued on, running as fast as his legs would take him over the white hills and thick snow that coated them.
            The next body came shortly after – another face he knew, but not one he could put a name to. A middle-aged woman, speared from behind through the belly. The weapon had broken inside her, and a long wooden pole stuck from her back, snapped at the end and slathered in blood. After that, Hugh’s hopes began to fade as he came upon more and more bodies.
            Arms slathered in Olfden’s blood and face wet with tears, Hugh staggered onwards, the gory bastard-sword still in his hands. Not another soul, he allowed himself to try and hope after every body, but it was no use. When he found Lynna’s body, throat slashed wide, he was hardly even surprised. There were the corpses of two children beside her; a boy and a girl from the village. The way her arms were wrapped around them told Hugh she had died trying to defend them.
            He did not allow himself to give up, though the faint light of hope had long since died. He stood a moment, looking at the three corpses, and took a long breath. He had never been as close to Lynna as he had Olfden, but he had loved her all the same for what she had done for him. The endless bowls of stew and broth, the warm cloak on a rainy night, the smile and promise of a better day.
            Hugh staggered on a few paces, passing more and more bodies. Gradually, the number of footprints fleeing eastwards dwindled as more and more villagers were cut down and left in the snow, dark shapes leaking blood into the white carpet. Soon, there was only one pair of footprints remaining, criss-crossed with the tracks of several horses.
            The final body was Felyr’s. Hugh was not surprised the tough old fellow had managed to make it further than everyone else, but even he had been run down. There was still a cleaver still gripped tight in his mutilated hand, and his face was twisted into a fierce and warlike grimace. His dirty old shirt was soaked with blood, for he had been struck many times, but the cleaver in his hand was also soaked with gore, and beside him lay a bandit, face-down in a pool of blood. Everyone’s dead, Hugh thought, falling to his knees beside the body of the old butcher. They’ve killed everyone – they’ve killed Sara, they must have.
            As the final ember of hope died, Hugh fell backwards into the snow and lay amongst the blood and bodies. All hope left him, for everyone he had loved was dead again. This time, instead of watching the chaos unfold from the rafters of Westwarden Castle’s great hall, he had walked through the carnage. He had watched as burning bodies fell from doorways or leapt through shutters. He had soaked his hands in blood checking the fallen. He had tried to defend them, and he had failed.
            To his surprise, Hugh found his still had tears to shed. Slumped in the freezing snow he longed for the cold to claim him, to drag him slowly down into its pristine white bosom and suffocate him there. I have nothing again, he thought to himself as the faces of those he loved swam before him: his mother and father, Olfden, Lynna, Sara.
            Oh Sara, I’m so sorry.
            Just as the cold was beginning to numb his blood-soaked limbs, a wretched coughing sound stirred Hugh back to movement. At his feet, the bloody bandit whom he had assumed dead was locked in spasm and convulsing with each cough. Hugh dragged himself upright and seized the leather-clad figure, rolling him onto his back.
            The face that greeted him was just as wretched as the coughing: near-toothless, with a crushed nose and one eye missing, the sallow-faced bandit coughed blood all over his chin whilst his weak hands were clamped over a terrible gut-wound.
            ‘Who are you?’ Hugh hissed at the man, shaking him by the collar of his leather hauberk. ‘Tell me who you are and why you’re here!’
            ‘Kill you all,’ the man said between splutters of blood. ‘Just kill you all. Took a few.’
            ‘What?’ Hugh said, his eyes narrowing. ‘Who sent you? And who did you take? Tell me and I may hurry your passing!’
            The bandit coughed and spluttered again, more blood seeping over his cracked and split lips. ‘Paid,’ he said. ‘Dead-Knuckles.’
            ‘Who?’ Hugh snarled. ‘A name, man, give me a name!’
            ‘Dead-Knuckles Asser,’ the man said, coughing more and more as Hugh shook him. ‘Dead-Knuckles Asser. Paid. Silver.’
            Who paid you?’ Hugh demanded as the man fell into a trembling fit of retches and gurgles. ‘Tell me! Answer me now, or may your soul forever be seared in Vidoria’s flames! Tell me!’
            As the bandit died, slumping back into the bloody snow, he extended a hand. Hugh watched as the man’s faintly-pointing fingers sank into the snow. Three sets of hoofprints led away from the scene of the massacre, veering north-eastwards up and the snow-covered slope. Eyes wide, Hugh’s heart hammered in his chest. What if they’ve taken Sara? he thought, blood colder than the snow around him. What will they do to her? Oh, Empress preserve her!
            Hugh leapt to his feet, but as he did he caught a pouch on the fallen bandit’s belt with his foot. It spun through the air, scattering a paltry pinch-load of coin across the snow. Hugh stooped and looked at them, turning them over. They’re all of the same type, he thought with trembling fingers. This is no coincidence – this cannot be coincidence. His fury rising, Hugh rose to his full height and clenched his fists around the hilt of his sword. You, he thought, glaring at the empty northern hill. There’s no other explanation. It’s you, again! Hugh let out a near-feral snarl before charging through the snow, moonlight dancing on his bloody sword.
            Behind him, the silver-white light of the dark glittered upon the blood and coins in the snow.  two names shone up from the silver pennies and through the great still tide of blood and snow: Emperor Lyshir III and Andrey of Busnik. The blood and silver all seemed to run back to the Western Imperial Heartlands, a stinking red river that seemed to puddle at the feet of Earl Aesinger.

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